The Palm Beach County, Fla., School Board has cancelled the nail program in its vocational schools until ventilation problems are resolved.
The nail education program offered by the public school system in Palm Beach County, Fla., has been suspended, according to Palm Beach County School District vocational director Larry Coup, because of complaints the county received about nail product odors and fumes and health problems. One nail instructor filed a workers compensation claim with the county, claiming the chemical vapors from the products made her ill. “The program has been suspended, but we’re hoping to have [ventilation problems] resolved and get the program up and running again by fall,” says Coup.
The county’s nail program, which graduates 250-300 students per year, was canceled in June When an instructor was taken ill by chemical vapors, the Palm Beach County Environmental Control (EC) office was called in by the school district to investigate her claim The EC found that product odors in the classroom were “readily noticeable.” according to EC officer Chris Skerlec. In Palm Beach Comity, nail classes are taught at three vocational schools in portable trailers and a cosmetology lab.
Based on complaints of illness from a South Tech Education Center (the trailer classroom) instructor and complaints from workers in other facilities, Skerlec’s office determined that the ventilation in the classrooms where nails were taught was inadequate. The EC didn’t say the levels of chemicals in the air were dangerous; in fact, the air was not tested According to an industrial hygienist with the EC, the levels of chemicals in the air were not tested because there are no exposure limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the chemical they were most concerned about — ethyl methacrylate. Another regulating agency, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, has not recommended limits either “NIOSH said that experience shows ethyl methacrylate is toxic, though it s not clear in what amounts,” she said (NIOSH is the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency that studies workplace exposures to chemicals and other potential hazards and makes recommendations on safe work environments.)
“There was no source of outdoor ventilation, the odors were very strong, and an instructor was ill.
Our tactic was to take measures to correct the problem,” said the industrial hygienist.
An air filtration unit was used in the facility where the instructor took ill, but the EC says its research shows that air filtration units are not acceptable when used as a sole source of ventilation, especially in classrooms where nails are taught. Tal Rushing, of the industrial education section of Florida’s Department of Education (which regulates cosmetology schools), says department regulations do allow air filtration units to be used in cosmetology programs. However, he adds, “Its still up to them at a local level to decide whether those are sufficient for their needs.”
Air filtration units alone aren’t sufficient because, explains the industrial hygienist, “Air filtration units depend on activated charcoal. Activated charcoal is like a sponge; it absorbs chemicals from the air as they pass through the filter. If the units are not maintained on a regular schedule, the filters don’t work.
“The school administrators at South Tech couldn’t tell us when the filters had last been changed, and they weren’t sure how often they needed to be changed. The unit stood in one corner of the room, which wasn’t practical,” she continues.
Because the vocational program is part of the public school system, the school board could be held liable if it continued to operate the nail program knowing that the ventilation in use was questionable. This is yet another reason why air filtration units have been rejected as a viable solution by the EC. “Even the manufacturers don’t have specs on how often the filters should be changed when used in this particular situation, so how can we establish a regular maintenance schedule for the instructors to follow?” questions the industrial hygienist.
The EC recommended that local exhaust ventilation systems (exhausting stale air to the outside and replacing it with fresh air) be installed in both the portable and permanent classrooms before the nail programs are reinstated.
The cost to the school board was estimated at a half-million dollars to outfit four new portable classrooms with such a system. The school board opted to cancel the nail program instead.
“If it was $100,000, I’m sure we could fund it with available resources,” said Coup. “For a half-million, we’d have to scramble.”
Coup says he hasn’t given up, though. “There are too many people impacted by the cancellation, quite frankly. One of our responsibilities is to meet the demands of the public. Why would I want to stop a program for which there’s such a demand?’
Coup faces a challenge trying to resurrect it “We don’t have a half- million dollars to do what [the EC] considers the complete implementation of its recommendation, so we need to find an alternative that is within our budget.”
What are the implications for schools in other parts of the state? The parties involved in Palm Beach County’s situation say schools should make sure that their ventilation is adequate for the environment in which chemicals are used. Says Skerlec, “As is often the case, [school administrators] took a routine classroom and turned it into a nail salon without upgrading the ventilation. The ventilation in the portable classroom was simply inadequate.”